Saturday 13 November 2021

Movie Review: Dark Waters (2019)

A legal drama, Dark Waters pits an investigative lawyer against a giant corporation damaging the environment and human health. The clash between everyday victims and big business is potent but familiar.

In Cincinnati, lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) works for Taft, a top legal firm specializing in representing chemical companies. He is approached by farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) of Parkersburg, West Virginia, where Robert's grandmother has lived all her life. Wilbur's cattle are being poisoned by chemicals dumped in a nearby landfill by the manufacturing giant DuPont, and no governmental agency appears interested in helping.

Robert's boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) approves a case. DuPont's head Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) is initially cooperative, but turns hostile when Robert uncovers the harmful impacts of PFOA, an unregulated chemical used in the manufacturing of Teflon. The case expands to the health impacts on the whole community, consuming years of Robert's life and threatening his health and the happiness of his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway).

Based on real events, Dark Waters is designed to cause outrage through revelations of profit-driven maleficence. Reminiscent of previous portrayals of corporate environmental negligence, here director Todd Haynes targets a large employer and respected corporation selling chemically-laden and potentially hazardous pans into every kitchen. The film strikes the expected David versus Goliath beats without ever quite soaring.

The drama is always engaging, but the emotional impact is dimmed by structural and artistic decisions. With the best of intentions the film tries to do too much, covering more than a decade of machinations. The focus meanders from a farmer's field to an elderly couple with health issues and finally a community subjected to large scale medical testing and subsequent prolonged research by a faceless panel. Rather than building to a crescendo the narrative is diluted into ups and downs, a realistic but drawn-out portrayal of a seemingly endless years-long struggle.

Robert Bilott is the heart of the story and the one constant presence through all the legal wranglings. As written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, this lawyer is grounded and well-intentioned, helped by humble origins. But Bilot is also presented as uncharismatic and generally dour, and Mark Ruffalo cannot do much except convey pained expressions as he endures frequent beratements by others. Faring worse is a wasted Anne Hathaway in a thankless and stock long-suffering-wife role.

The dilemmas inherent in standing up to a large employer enrich the narrative. DuPont is exposed as knowingly concealing evidence of harmful chemicals, but Dark Waters also acknowledges the backlash against challenging a company actively providing livelihoods and sustaining communities. 

Haynes and his cinematographer Edward Lachman add to the downbeat mood by bathing the film in blue-grey hues, metaphorically representing the fog of forever chemicals dominating the environment. Non-stick pans place plenty of food on many tables, but the Teflon only looks clean.

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